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2011 Belk Bowl Preview

Louisville Cardinals vs NC State Wolfpack

It seems like a matchup best reserved for an NCAA basketball regional semifinal in the 1980s. It actually will be the football pairing in the Charlotte-based postseason game formerly known as the Meineke Bowl. When the Louisville Cardinals face the North Carolina State Wolfpack inside the home of the Carolina Panthers, nobody knows exactly what to expect.

So many bowl games are coin flips each and every year, but that’s usually because it’s hard to gauge the level of emotional interest each team carries into the fight. With this matchup between Louisville and N.C. State, the guesswork is not focused on these teams’ mindsets or attitudes. The hard project here is to assess the level of quality possessed by coach Charlie Strong’s Cardinals and coach Tom O’Brien’s Pack Attack. These are two unknown, unproven quantities, two programs whose futures are very uncertain. This game is merely a microcosm of the big picture in Bluegrass Country and the Carolina Research Triangle area.

This game is not one prolonged attempt to grope for answers, one extended attempt to ask, “Will the real versions of these teams please stand up?” No, the real Louisville and NCSU teams on hand in Charlotte are the teams they’ve been in a pair of 7-5 seasons. Both the Cards and the Pack are tremendously inconsistent, which is precisely why emotions won’t matter so much in this contest. It’s all about execution and performance; the team with superior technique and precision will ride into 2012 with a bowl victory.

Louisville lost to Florida International and Marshall at home this season, and it also endured a painfully bad offensive performance in a 14-7 loss at North Carolina in which UL’s one touchdown was a late garbage-time score. The Cardinals’ offense simply went nowhere in the first half of the season, leading Strong to fire offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and replace him with Shawn Watson. This move proved to be instrumental in improving Louisville’s season. Under Watson, UL scored a stunning 38-35 win at West Virginia, enough to give the Cardinals a season-ending share of a three-way tie for the Big East championship. Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, just a freshman, showed enormous promise by lifting the Cardinals to the top of the Big East, but he is far from mastering the nuances and challenges of the quarterback position. This game represents an important moment in his career; Bridgewater needs to show that he can apply the lessons of his first regular season to his first postseason go-round. A strong performance will encourage everyone in and around the program, building the belief that 2012 can be a breakout season in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

For North Carolina State, the outlook is a little less positive, but the fundamental reality of pervasive question marks is quite similar to the situation faced by Louisville. North Carolina State won at Virginia, and the Wolfpack hammered the eventual ACC champions from Clemson, 37-13. Then again, NCSU was also the same team that lost to Wake Forest and Boston College, and which trailed Maryland 41-14 with seven minutes left in the third quarter of the 2011 regular-season finale. North Carolina State played (and defeated) two Football Championship Subdivision teams this year, meaning that the Wolfpack needed to win seven games, not six, to attain bowl eligibility. When the 6-5 Pack fell behind Maryland by 27 points, it seemed that their season was going to end in disgrace and humiliation, but quarterback Mike Glennon rallied his team to 35 straight points for a 49-41 lead before a pick-six from NCSU’s defense put the finishing touches on a rousing 56-41 win which made this Belk Bowl bid possible. North Carolina State can be brilliant, and it can be awful… sometimes in the same game.

We’ll simply have to see if State and Louisville can manage to be their best selves for 60 minutes in Charlotte. The team that can put its best foot forward for a longer period of time will earn a special scalp. It need not be more complicated than that.

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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